Capitol Weekly Water 2015: Senator Lois Wolk: ‘Drought is the new normal: We need to prepare for it and our policies have to reflect that.’

Lois Wolk headerIn her keynote address at Capitol Weekly’s Water 2015 conference, Senator Lois Wolk says drought is the new normal and calls for wise spending of Prop 1 funds, more data gathering

Capitol Weekly’s 2015 conference on water was held in Sacramento on February 24th. It was a beautiful, warm and sunny day – one in a series of similar days but really out of character for the season. Senator Lois Wolk began her speech by acknowledging the pleasant weather, admitting it’s hard not to enjoy but she feels guilty for doing so:

” … Unfortunately, it’s pretty alarming to anyone that knows much about water or water management in this state, and certainly to many of you in the audience who are water managers. This is a pretty sophisticated audience; certainly you have the same feeling that I do when we enjoy the beautiful weather.

Last year was indeed the driest on record, and this year could possibly be worse. I hope not. … Welcome to the new normal, in my view. And that’s how we should approach water policy from now on in California.

I’m going to stop talking about drought. This is the new normal and I think we need to prepare for it and our policies have to reflect that. Climate change isn’t something that we should have a discussion about with respect to just thinking about it in the future. I think that we are feeling extremes now; that’s true in so many parts of the world, and we should act as if it is the new normal.

[pullquote]When we look at what has been a massive centralized traditional water system, I don’t believe these systems were built for what is in front of us, for what is here – the new normal.[/pullquote]

When we look at what has been a massive centralized traditional water system, I don’t believe these systems were built for what is in front of us, for what is here – the new normal. I don’t think they will be as reliable under the extremes that we anticipate and that we see happening under climate change.

Our outdated water systems need a lot of work, as you all know. We have a lot of deferred maintenance and neglected infrastructure and it needs to be replaced. Just last night that we read about the Hollywood Hills break, just extraordinary amount of water lost from broken pipes. That happens, and it’s happening more and more frequently at the local level.

The US EPA identified about $44 billion in water infrastructure needs in California. That places the state at the top of the list for funding needs in the nation. That’s not the list I’d like to be on top of, but we are and number one at that.

That’s just the existing system.

On the ecosystem front, conditions are concerning as you know. Often in drought, the first action is to relax environmental protections and that’s not sustainable either in the long term. So in my view, new challenges necessitate new thinking and new solutions.

I believe last year the legislature and the Governor took the first steps. I think the passage of Prop 1 and the groundwater legislation were truly amazing; that they came together and that both were passed is a tremendous accomplishment for all of us, frankly. At $7.5 billion, we know and everyone agrees, it’s only a drop in the bucket, and indeed it only is a drop in the bucket, but it’s a good start if we spend it wisely, and I hope we will.

Lois Wolk #3In the Governor’s budget, he’s proposed to invest about a half a billion dollars in Prop 1 funds to fund water related projects in the immediate 2015-2016 budget. I share his objectives; I think we need to put Prop 1 funds out as soon as we possibly can, and at the same time, it’s the responsibility, I believe, of the legislature to make sure that we leverage the limited bond funding for maximum possible benefit.

That means we have to leverage as much local funding and federal cost share as we can for water projects. It means using Prop 1 funds as incentives and carrots for developing more resilient water supplies at the local level, for what I call the water infrastructure of the future. Recycling, cleaning up the groundwater we have, and rewarding the innovative programs that frankly many regions have proposed and have been developing over the past ten years and should be encouraged.

Quickly but thoughtfully directing the Prop 1 funding would assist California in meeting some of these challenges that are here and lie immediately ahead; those challenges are aging infrastructure, growing population, and climate change, and they are challenging all at every level of government.

We can’t keep investing in the same old strategies. We need to think differently, especially in regard to ensuring that Prop 1 allocations support important adopted state policies. In my view, reducing reliance on the Delta is one of them; adapting to climate change is key as well.

[pullquote]We can’t keep investing in the same old strategies. We need to think differently, especially in regard to ensuring that Prop 1 allocations support important adopted state policies. In my view, reducing reliance on the Delta is one of them; adapting to climate change is key as well.[/pullquote]

As we move forward, the legislature has to provide guidance and oversight to ensure that the Prop 1 funding results in the maximum benefits possible for Californians. For instance, we can prioritize funding programs that meet multiple state objectives, such as those that improve water efficiency, and also reduce energy consumption and greenhouse emissions. Multi-benefit projects are important.

In addition, we need to prioritize funding for water needs that have been starved for funding in the past. We know that there are 1 million people in California who have no access to sources of clean drinking water. That’s appalling in a state of this wealth. That’s simply unacceptable.

Early funding should go out for water supplies to disadvantaged communities. We need early funding to go out to help develop the groundwater management plans that are called for at the local level. We need funding for the Delta Conservancy and for Delta science – we need to move that forward. We need funding to aggressively develop water supplies that will reduce our reliance on the Delta and are drought resistant – I’m talking about recycling and groundwater cleanup and reuse – that needs to happen. These are projects that are going on at the local level that really do need the state assistance, support and facilitation, and they are all good.

The second advance was the legislation involving groundwater. Speaking to the choir, we know how important groundwater is to the state of California. It’s a critical component of our water supply, 30% in – I’m not even going to talk about a normal year. It’s going up; I think last year it was as high as 50-60%. That’s more than likely the new normal but it’s not sustainable. We’re withdrawing more water annually than we replenish on the average of 1-2 MAF each year with an annual deficit moving up to 10-20% of the state’s urban water use.

Last year’s groundwater package, I thought, was a tremendous step forward. What we need to do is to support the local communities in success because that is the approach that the Governor and the legislature decided was the important one and I agree with that. We need to support the local communities as they develop their groundwater management agencies, do a plan, and ultimately implement it. The only thing I regret is that it’s going to take so long, but nonetheless, it’s an important step forward.

We need to help local communities and use early funding to assist them with the technical and consultant information that they really need for good planning. Especially when you look at some of these small disadvantaged communities, it’s going to be an incredible challenge for the State Water Board to figure out what the best way is of getting water to those communities.

We’ve had that struggle in my district as well. In rural areas, there are communities with terrible water quality – 30 or 40 houses, bad land use planning, but nonetheless, the people are there. It’s exorbitant to tie into local water supplies let alone to keep the system going, so how are we going to do that.

It is a tremendous challenge and I think the State Water Board is well equipped to deal with that challenge. In fact, during the bond discussions, we would have like to have given the State Water Board a whole lot more of the money and the responsibility for a lot more programs; they seem to be able to know how to get money out the door for water projects, and they seem to do it well. The way we know that is that people throughout the state said they are really effective at what they do, so take a look at the way these funds are distributed. We didn’t have a lot of time to do that, but we did hear loud and clear that the State Water Board is a good one to serve as a model in that area, so they have their challenges set out for them.

We need to build on and refine this groundwater bill and making sure that these funds get to the good projects and achieve something. We need an outcome. We need to measure. We need to know that we’re using the money wisely.

Senator Wolk then turned to the subject of data collection.

After listening to the Australians in particular, I have to tell you, we are really behind in doing a couple of things that are necessary, given our climate and the change and the reality in front of us. We currently lack really basic information necessary to manage our water in normal years, let alone drought years.

When Australia confronted its extended drought, one of the first actions they took was to try and figure out how much water was being used, where was it used, and what was truly needed, and this information provided the foundation for determine what management strategies they needed to respond to their severe and prolonged drought.

We don’t have that comparable information in California. Our agencies, such as the State Board, cannot require water users to provide that information outside of this limited drought emergency. They have the power now; they may not have the power if by some miracle we emerge from this drought. We don’t know how much water is available, how much is necessary to sustain our ecosystems or how much will be available for use downstream after those basic needs are met.

[pullquote]Data gathering, although it seems pretty boring to talk about, is really essential. Without it, agencies are left to take broad-level emergency actions.[/pullquote]

Data gathering, although it seems pretty boring to talk about, is really essential. Without it, agencies are left to take broad-level emergency actions. For instance, the State Water Board issued curtailment orders for all post-1914 water rights holders in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River systems this year. With better information, the system could be operated in a much more detailed, targeted, and strategic manner. With better information and clearer protections, we might be able to operate more flexibly without requiring the relaxation of environmental protections or severe curtailments.

Back to Australia for a moment, in droughts, the ecosystem water is protected, allowing the water above and beyond that amount to be available for potential transfer. The market essentially takes over. Even when they tell me, I can’t believe how it happens, but that’s what happens. Similar drought tools such as an expanded water market are very difficult to develop in California without better information. We will be spending most of our time and money in our litigation over the molecules of the water and you know that’s true.

So there are real challenges that face us, and also in particular, face the local communities. Funding is a major issue for local communities, and local communities are responsible for actually, according to Ellen Hanak, about 84% of all the funding in the water project area. So, we really need to come to grips with this 218 problem and with the fact that infrastructure is aging and is phenomenally expensive. The federal government has truly withdrawn from this field and even the state only provides a small amount of the money, even with the wonderful $7.5 billion bond, it’s as we said, a drop in the bucket.

We really do need some focus, and there have been groups meeting during the interim to try and figure out how to handle this. I would like to think that the administration is also struggling with this and they are. There are so many things to happen of necessity at the local level because that’s where the action is. For example, conducting water audits, figuring out where the leaks are, taking care of the leaks, targeting the repairs – we probably could save quite a bit of water and increase our resiliency if we were able to check and repair some of these areas.

CW 2015 AudienceWe don’t meter everything. Lord knows it’s time to get over this and meter absolutely everything. And my farmers will recall me, but I’m termed out, so I can’t be recalled [laughter] … but the fact is, we don’t meter multi-family housing, for example. The individual units are not metered. Some are, some aren’t, but we need to do that. Why? Because the incentive to conserve that comes with the bill has to go to the individual unit, it can’t go to the landlord, because it’s the person using the water in the apartment that makes the difference. So we need to do that. A lot of people live in apartments.

We need to meter in so many areas. We need dual metering for wastewater, we need dedicated meters for landscape water use and all of this is expensive and it’s difficult to enforce, to put into effect at the local level, but that’s the kind of thing we’re going to need to do. Data, data, data.

We need to reduce the energy that our water systems encourage. 30% of the cost of the water is the energy that brings it from one part of the state to another and get it to the household. Truly, we need to be able to marry these issues and figure out with the distributed generation and the renewable energy that we have and the availability and low price of solar energy systems, there’s no reason for a water agency not to try and move into the area of renewables, and many are. And they are doing a great job, but we need to do more of that.

The last thing I want to talk about is my favorite subject, big expensive water infrastructure. I want to talk about dams for a minute. I think the era of big expensive water infrastructure, like the Delta tunnels or these enormous dams, make less and less sense. I think storage makes a great deal of sense. Nimble storage, spread out throughout the state of California where the water is going to be and that we need to store it short term or even long term.

[pullquote]I think the era of big expensive water infrastructure, like the Delta tunnels or these enormous dams, make less and less sense. I think storage makes a great deal of sense. Nimble storage, spread out throughout the state of California where the water is going to be and that we need to store it short term or even long term.[/pullquote]

The water systems that we have been relying on are in decline. Local storage, groundwater storage, small reservoirs, water recycling, stormwater capture, groundwater cleanup, removing the sediment in our existing dams to increase their capacity, and retrofitting those dams that need to be retrofitted so they can store more water – those are the kinds of things that I think we can do in the short term with minimal opposition that will stretch our water supply and make it more resilient. That’s what I think we’re going to need to do. These big expensive lumbering systems that can’t respond to change in climate and changing water patterns just seem to me to be in decline.

So I think the next few years are going to be critical. I think the past year was a really great beginning. I want to work together with folks; I’m the Chair of Budget Subcommittee Two, which oversees the expenditures of a lot of areas in the natural resources agencies. I am looking forward to doing that and I want to make sure we use this opportunity to begin to build the next water policy and water infrastructure, the kind that will sustain our state for the next several generations.

The floor was then opened up for questions.

Question: I’m curious about how the Show Me The Water laws that went into effect some years back have been working and are there any opportunities to expand that what seems to me a very reasonable approach?

Answer: We’ve talked about that off and on, how Sheila Kuehl’s bill and other bills have fared and we sort of let that conversation … other things took precedence, not only because the bond and funding was on everybody’s mind, but also because building had slowed down tremendously. We were in the middle of a tremendous recession, but now that we’re coming out of that and developers and builders are moving forward with some energy. I think it’s going to be time to look at that again, and there may be some effort with Senator Pavley to take a look at that in our policy committee.

Question: Senator Wolk, do you see a role for the legislature in land use, creating legislation, policies, guidelines, that sort of thing?

Answer: Yes I do, I do think we have a role there. It’s a difficult role to play because we aren’t alike throughout the state of California, but I do think we have an interest in marrying land use to the kinds of problems that we have in terms of water and resource allocation. It’s a tough conversation to have; a very tough one. Local communities do not like to be told by the state how to run their business or make their decisions.

I went through that when we did our flood protection legislation. There used to be floods in California, and we did a marvelous package of flood legislation in 2006-07 with the previous governor, and one of the purposes of that was to institute a 200-year level of flood protection, particularly in the Central Valley. We did that; it took us awhile, and there was a lot of opposition, and it came from local communities who guard their land use authority strongly, so you are always going up against that. The constitution makes it clear; it’s local land use, so it’s important to try and achieve a better balance for the safety of the entire community. We were able to do that with respect to flood protection.

With regard to resource allocation, I think it will be harder, but it may well be that … I never thought we’d get a water bond and I certainly never thought we’d get groundwater legislation through the legislature, but we have, so I think the conversation would move further in that direction. I’d like to see it go there.

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